Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Dutch Royal Barge restored and on display

Friday, October 16th, 2015

The 200-year-old Royal Barge of the Dutch monarchy is back on display at the National Maritime Museum (Het Scheepvaartmuseum) in Amsterdam after a meticulous restoration. On Monday, October 5th, the barge began its journey from a warehouse in Hoogwoud to Amsterdam. It was transported over water and land in stages over the course of two days. It arrived at its new home, a custom-built glass-walled boathouse on a jetty next to the museum’s landing, on Wednesday. A week later, the new Royal Barge was shown off to a crowd of 300 invited guests and as of October 15th, it is once again on public display.

Known as the “golden carriage of the water” because of its dramatic gilded Neptune group figurehead and numerous other gilded ornaments, the Royal Barge has been out of public view since July of 2008. The museum had begun a comprehensive renovation program in 2007 requiring its entire collection to be moved temporarily. The barge was the last piece of the collection to leave the museum, and they had to cut in a hole in the wall to get it out of the building. When the museum reopened in 2011, there was no adequate space to display the barge, so it was kept in storage.

Designed by 21-year-old architect Cornelis Jan Glavimans, the Royal Barge was built between 1816 and 1818 by order of King William I. William had declared himself King of the Netherlands, the first to hold that title, on March 16th, 1815, so his kingship was as new as kingdom when he commissioned the boat. There was a fashion among the European royal houses for luxurious rowing barges to be used on special state occasions. The brand new king of a brand new maritime kingdom was therefore keen to get an elaborately decorated rowing barge of his own, especially since barge travel was common in the Netherlands and wealthy families had their own barges just like they had their own horse-drawn carriages.

The barge is 17 meters (about 56 feet) long and seats 20 rowers. From the bow to the stern, it is embellished with gilded wood carvings. The main feature is the Neptune figurehead. The god of the sea sits on his shell carriage drawn by three seahorses (the mythological kind that are horses up top and fishes from the waist down, not the real animal). He holds his trident in one hand and the reigns in the other. The sides of the barge are decorated with floral elements including acanthus vines and orange branches (William was a scion of the House of Orange) and lions in a sphinx-like pose. On the stern of the barge is the royal coat of arms.

Once King William I had his golden carriage of the water, he never used it. For 23 years the Royal Barge twiddled its gilded thumbs until it finally had its maiden voyage carrying the new monarch William II at his inauguration on March 30th, 1841. In the next 150 years, the barge was used less than 30 times. It carried the monarchs for naval reviews, jubilees, special celebrations and foreign heads of state during official visits. The last time it saw service transporting royalty over the waters was on April 29th, 1962, during the celebration of the silver wedding anniversary of Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard.

While it has spent the decades since its retirement on dry land and has been on permanent loan to the National Maritime Museum since 1983, the barge is still crown property and would be bound to come out of retirement if the monarch called it to duty. There was talk of the barge being deployed for the inauguration of King Willem-Alexander on April 30th, 2013, but the authorities were concerned about its seaworthiness so the idea was scrapped.

Thanks to a one million euro donation from the BankGiro Lottery and the Cultuur Lottery, the National Maritime Museum was able to do a complete restoration of the barge not just to make it look shiny and new, but to ensure it is seaworthy and usable for future royal events. The cabin was removed and the hull stripped of paint. The oak keel and ribs were in surprisingly good condition underneath the yellowed and cracked paint. Nail holes were filled and the whole surface of the hull was sanded, primed, painted and varnished.

The gilded statues and ornaments were a little trickier. First the statues were X-rayed to identify structural issues. They found that the figures are made of many smaller pieces put together with screws and forged nails. The constant cycle of moisture and drying over the past two centuries caused large cracks in the wood that in the past were filled with hard compounds that in the long term only exacerbated the instability. Restorers had to dismantle all of the wood parts, remove hundreds of hard fillings and then reassemble them all using synthetic resins. Then they had to reapply the gold leaf to areas where it had worn off. Restorers used 1,150 three-inch square leaves of gold leaf to restore the barge’s shine. The regilding was done at the museum so visitors could observe the work in progress.

Here’s a brief video from AzkoNobel, a company that specializes in painting yachts which provided expertise on applying protective paint coatings to the barge. There are some neat views of the barge during the restoration process.


16th c. canvas mural restored to original splendor

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

A massive work by 16th century Dutch painter Lambert Sustris has been restored to its original splendor and will go on display for the first time in years at Vassar College’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center in Poughkeepsie, New York.

The oil-on-canvas painting is of monumental size (5’6″ high by 11’6″ wide) and was originally one of a series of five canvas murals that adorned the walls of a palazzo in Venice. It depicts a scene from the Tabula Cebetis, a philosophical allegory traditionally attributed to Cebes of Thebes (430-350 B.C.), a disciple of Socrates who appears in Plato’s Phaedo, but which in fact was written by an unknown author in the 1st century or 2nd century A.D. In dialogue form, the text describes an allegorical image deposited in the Temple of Chronos that presents Life as three concentric circles replete with obstacles that individuals have to surmount to reach True Education and her gift of Knowledge. False Education is in the second circle. She looks attractive and well put together, but she can’t give seekers real knowledge. They have to overcome the more subtle evils of the second circle and find the strength to climb the narrow, steep path towards True Education or else they’ll be eternally trapped in error by their own laziness and corruptibility.

While widely known in antiquity and still copied by Muslim scholars in the 9th century, European intellectuals rediscovered the Tabula Cebetis when a Latin prose translation by Odaxius was published in 1497. Lambert Sustris was born in Amsterdam 20 or so years later (between 1515 and 1520). His early education isn’t known, but he we know he visited Rome as a youth because the scamp graffitoed his name on the walls of Nero’s Domus Aurea. By 1535 Sustris was working in Venice, doing landscapes for Titian’s studio. He and Titian became friends and traveled together to Germany twice in 1548 and 1550 where they painted the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and other notables during sessions of the Diet of Augsburg.

Sustris painted The Circle of False Education during his time in Venice. The vast canvas was created from two horizontal pieces of fabric blanket stitched together. It was affixed to the wall for hundreds of years before it was removed, stretched and secured to glue and canvas linings. Conservators believe the stretcher dates to the 19th century and the painting hasn’t been restored since then either, so it’s likely the owners of the Venetian palazzo stripped the murals off their walls and sold them 150 or so years ago.

The painting was gifted to Vassar College by Charles M. Pratt in 1917. It’s been in such bad condition, discolored by old varnish and overpaint, for so long that it was kept in storage and hasn’t been seen in public for years. The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center enlisted the aid of experts at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts to get the mural back in display condition. Paintings conservator Sandra Webber feared the worst when she saw the darkened surface the tell-tale whitened areas of severely blanched varnish. Her concerned was that the original paint underneath the discolored varnish was lost beyond redemption.

Cleaning tests revealed that pale pinks, brilliant blues, greens and oranges were still strong underneath the varnish, so conservators made an 18-month restoration plan that would revive the obscured colors. The first phase was to remove the varnishes and coatings and all the overpaint that could be safely removed. The cleaning process revealed a number of ills — later additions like mountains, probably meant to cover paint loss from the original clouds, in the background, tears and tugs from when the canvas was pulled off the wall, several larger holes that may have been original to fit the canvas around architectural details — but Webber was confident they could be repaired.

After the discolored layers were removed and the original paint exposed, the second phase of conservation began. This phase focused on reconstructing the image, filling areas of loss with a custom putty and acrylic paints matching Sustris’ original palette. Conservators believe the colors were chosen deliberately because they evoke frescoes. Fresco, bright pigments applied over a layer of wet plaster, doesn’t work very well in high humidity environments like cities built on lagoons, so it’s likely that the canvas mural was chosen as a more viable alternative to frescoes in perpetually moist Venice.

And now, the whole point of this post, the before and after pictures!

You might notice the figures are not highly detailed. That’s because the mural wasn’t meant to be seen up close. The change in color is one for the ages, in my opinion, especially the heavily blanched areas like the hill False Education sits upon.


Agincourt thank-you sceptre to go on display

Monday, October 12th, 2015

For the first time in 600 years, a sceptre King Henry V gave to the City of London in gratitude for its support in the Hundred Years’ War will go on public display. The City of London helped finance the Battle of Agincourt, loaning Henry 10,000 marks (about three million pounds in today’s money). After Henry’s forces won so decisive a victory against the flower of French chivalry arrayed in much greater numbers against them on October 25th, 1415, the king had the sceptre made and presented it to the city as a thank you gift.

Made by the finest craftsmen — including French ones — of the age, the sceptre is 17 inches long and made out of two spiral-carved stems of rock crystal with ribbons of inlaid gold. At the top of the sceptre is a gold crown topped with fleurs-de-lis and crosses and decorated with gemstones from around the world: red spinels from Afghanistan, sapphires from Ceylon, pearls from the Arabian gulf. Inside the crown is the king’s coat of arms painted on parchment. The sceptre was made between 1415 and February of 1421 when it appears in a painting of the coronation of Catherine of Valois, wife of Henry V.

It’s a near-miracle that the sceptre has survived all this time.

Under the republican protectorate of Oliver Cromwell which followed the Civil War, the Crown Jewels were sold off and there was a danger the sceptre could have met the same fate, had it not been hidden away by the City authorities.

Eight years after Cromwell’s death and the restoration of the Monarchy which followed, it took the cowardly self-interest of the serving Lord Mayor to save the sceptre.

During the Great Fire of London of 1666, Sir Thomas Bloodworth – rather than lead the rescue efforts – made sure his personal treasures were safely sent out of the City, including the sceptre, only returning in person three days later.

It’s been seen by very few people in the past 600 years. The sceptre emerges from the protective confines of London’s Guildhall during Coronations when it is borne by the Lord Mayor of London, and for the “Silent Ceremony” in which the outgoing and incoming Lord Mayor place their hands upon it during the annual inauguration of a new mayor. The last time it was seen in public was at the 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

The sceptre’s connection to Agincourt was only recently discovered by Dr. Michael Hall, curator of the Rothschild Collection at Exbury House, Hampshire, and Ralph Holt while researching the treasures of Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London since the 18th century. Dr. Hall and Mr. Holt with the help of Dr. Clare Taylor, wife of former Lord Mayor Sir Roger Gifford, have authored a book on the silver and gold of Mansion House. The book, the third in a series about the collections of Mansion House, covers more than 80 precious objects, including the regalia of the Mayorality.

The Honour and Grandeur: Regalia, Gold and Silver at the Mansion House will be released later this month to coincide with the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. This is the first time the sceptre has been published in its long life, believe it or not. The sceptre itself will celebrate the anniversary by going on public display for the first time. Unveiling the Crystal Sceptre: Henry V’s Gift to the City opens at Guildhall Art Gallery on Saturday, October 24th, the day before St. Crispin’s Day. The exhibition will tell the full story of the sceptre, starting with the City of London’s financial support for Henry V’s great battle and following King Henry’s 1421 pilgrimage to holy sites associated with his three patron saints.

During that pilgrimage he may have stopped in Hedon where he presented the mayor with another Agincourt-related treasure: the Hedon Mace, an iron mace believed to have been an actual weapon used at the Battle of Agincourt which Henry had silver-gilt and presented to the city again as thanks for its support. The Hedon Mace will be on display with the Crystal Sceptre, the only objects given by Henry V that have remained with their original recipients for 600 years.


10th c. Danish Borgring fortress to be excavated

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

The 10th century Borgring fortress discovered on the Danish island of Zealand last year was identified by a geomagnetic survey and a few test pits dug at the gates and ramparts. There are only seven ring fortresses of the Trelleborg type known to exist, and the last one was found 60 years ago. The discovery of Borgring 30 miles south of Copenhagen was exciting because of its rarity and because it opened up the possibility of an excavation done with the latest archaeological technology.

The Danish Castle Centre will bring that possibility to life, thanks to a 20 million kroner (ca. $3 million) grant from the AP Møller Fund and 4.5 million kroner (ca. $687,000) from Køge Municipality. These generous gifts will fund a three-year excavation of the Borgring fortress.

blockquote>”With the grant, the Danish Castle Centre – a division of Museum Southeast Denmark and Aarhus University – has worked out a unique research project seeking to explore the secrets Borgring is hiding beneath Danish soil,” the Danish Castle Centre said.

“With the use of modern archaeological methods the scientists and archaeologists will investigate how the fortresses were used, how they were organised, how quickly they were built, their age and what environment, landscape and geography they were a part of.”

So far, it has become clear that the massive ring fortress has a diameter of 142 metres with 7 metre-high palisades, while it also endured a fiery blaze at one of its gates.

The Trelleborg fortresses were all built according to the same geometric plan — circular with gates aligned on the cardinal compass points — within an hour’s march of each other. Counting tree rings at the type site of Trelleborg pinpointed the construction date to early 981 since the timbers were felled in autumn of 980 and would have needed some time to cure before use. The other fortresses date to approximately the same time, and their strikingly similar design and aligned placement suggests they were conceived by a single mind.

There are some anomalies with the Borgring, however. Its gates are not perfectly aligned along the cardinal points; there is an 11-degree dislocation which may have been a topographical necessity to ensure that it looked properly symmetrical in its landscape. Also samples of burned oak timbers found at the north gate were radiocarbon dated to between 895 and 1017 A.D., which places the fort in the general age range of the other trelleborgs but isn’t precise enough to confirm that it is in fact one of them. Dendrochronological analysis can narrow it down further.

The precise date is important with these fortresses because the most prevalent theory right now about their construction is that they were built by King Harald Bluetooth in reaction to his defeat at German hands in 974. To defend his territory from further incursions, Bluetooth set about building an extensive network of forts and infrastructure (bridges, roads) in Denmark and southern Sweden. Harald Bluetooth died in 985 or 986, just five or six years after the first Trelleborg ringfort was built. If Harald didn’t build them, his son Sweyn Forkbeard may have, not to as a defensive installation to keep out the Germans, but as military training camps to prepare his troops for his raids on England in the first decade of the 11th century and his full-scale invasion of the island in 1013.

The excavation is slated to begin next year and with the fortress being a short distance from the highway so close to Copenhagen, the archaeological team is expecting a significant amount of interest from the public. The team plans to build an observation deck so visitors can follow the archaeologists at work without getting in their way.


Another hoard whose owner’s name is known

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

Last month’s discovery of a hoard with a name scratched in the pot in Bulgaria was a first for me, but that’s just because I didn’t know about the hoard of Republican Roman silver denarii discovered in the 1960s in the archaeological site of Cosa, near modern-day Ansedonia in southern Tuscany.

Cosa was a Latin colonia founded in 273 B.C. on a hill overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was a small town of about 13 hectares enclosed by a wall built out of massive polygonal limestone blocks between 273 and 264 B.C. The wall was studded with 18 square towers and three gates which opened onto the main streets of the city. Cosa was designed on an octagonal grid system modified to accommodate the rollercoaster topography of the town: two peaks with a valley between. An arx (citadel) was built on the highest peak inside the walls. This was the religious zone whose most ancient temple was the Auguraculum where auspices were taken. Two other temples were built in the 3rd and 2nd centuries, dedicated to Jupiter and Mater Matuta. The temple of Jupiter was replaced in the second quarter of the 2nd century with the Capitolium, a temple dedicated to the Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Juno, Minerva) modeled after the one in Rome.

From the Capitolium a broad street leads straight to the civic center of the town, a long rectangular piazza accessed by a monumental arch built around 170 B.C. and flanked on three sides by porticoes and surrounded by water channels. This is where you find Cosa’s main public buildings: the forum, the Comitium Curiae where the popular assembly met to vote, pass laws and hold court, the carcer or public prison, the Forum Piscarium where cisterns were built to hold fish for the city’s market. From 197 to 150 B.C., the forum saw a burst of development with the addition of eight commercial atria with shopfronts opening on the piazza, central pool and side rooms. A colonnaded basilica for judiciary use was also built during this period, as was a small temple possibly dedicated to Concordia.

The northwest sector of the city was the residential neighborhood. In the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., most of the houses were a standard size — one block each — with living space on a second storey and modest garden space behind, both floors surrounding a central atrium. About 20 of the 248 private homes were double the size. They were reserved for the decurions, the city senators. In the early 1st century A.D., larger, more luxurious homes were built next to the forum. They are characterized by fine mosaic floors and frescoed walls and an extensive garden. The house of Quintus Fulvius is one of these luxury homes.

Cosa was sacked around 70 B.C., possibly by Tyrrhenian pirates like the ones turned into dolphins by Dionysus when they tried to kidnap him. The town was rebuilt under Augustus Caesar and was occupied at least until the 3rd century. By the early 5th century, it was in ruins. Rutilius Claudius Namatianus, a poet of the late imperial era, mentioned it in the elegiac poem De Reditu Suo documenting his sea voyage home to Gaul from Rome in 416 A.D.:

Then we descry, all unguarded now, desolate Cosa’s ancient ruins and unsightly walls. ‘Tis with a qualm that I adduce mid serious things the comic reason for its downfall; but I am loath to suppress a laugh. The story runs that once upon a time the townsfolk were forced to migrate and left their homes behind because rats infested them! I’d sooner believe in losses suffered by the Pygmies’ infantry and in cranes leagued solemnly to fight their wars.

There is archaeological evidence — pottery, post-imperial construction — of a very reduced human presence in Cosa even after the urban legendary plague of rats, but even that stops by the 7th century at the latest.

The American Academy in Rome began excavating the ruins in 1948, reaching the larger homes in the mid-1960s. The domus had been partially reconstructed in the 1st century B.C. and two pottery fragments from that period were found with “Q. FVL.” inscribed on them, leading archaeologists to hypothesize that the owner of the pottery and the house it was found in was one Quintus Fulvius. The house became known as the House of the Treasure because the excavation unearthed a pot filled with 2,004 silver denarii from the Roman Republic buried in the pantry next to the kitchen.

The oldest coins in the hoard date to the end of the 2nd century B.C., but most of them date to the first third of the 1st century B.C. with the newest ones from 74-72 B.C. They’re in exceptional condition, almost uncirculated, so they must have been buried soon after they were struck. That suggests they went into the ground around 70 B.C., a key date for the town of Cosa. It seems Quintus was stashing his savings to keep them out of pirate hands before fleeing the city, only he never returned to dig them back up.

The amount of money was significant, but still relatively small potatoes compared to the vast sums that passed through the hands of Rome’s richest citizens. Cornelius Nepos reports that the wealthy but frugal Roman banker Titus Pomponius Atticus (110 – 32 B.C.), a close friend of Cicero’s, spent 187.5 denarii a day to keep his household running. A Roman legionary in the late Republic made 120 denarii. A family of four would spend 90 denarii a year on food. A hundred years later in Pompeii just before the eruption a slave cost 625 denarii and a kilo of bread cost 1/8 of a denarius. Savings clearly went a lot further in Cosa than in the big city.

The American Academy in Rome collaborated with the Superintendency for Archaeological Heritage of Tuscany to build an archaeological museum on the site in 1981. The Archaeological Museum of Cosa exhibits the most significant finds excavated from the public buildings, private homes, the port and the necropolis outside the city walls, but until September 20th of this year, the coin hoard was never put on display. It’s a security issue. This handsome masonry structure that could pass for a domus if you squint at it suits its ancient setting very well, but there’s no budget here for impenetrable glass cases, high tech security systems and 24 hour guards. Quintus’ kept his money safe for 2,000 years by burying it in the pantry; the museum is not about to break that streak and hand over his treasure to modern pirates. It does plan to create replicas, however, that will be exhibited alongside the model of Quintus’ home just like the real coins were last month.

Excavations of the site picked up again in 2013 after a long hiatus, and this time digitization is a priority. An international archaeological team is not only documenting the dig and blogging about it with infectious enthusiasm, but they’ve also photographed the entire museum collection and laser scanned a selection of artifacts to create 3D virtual models of them. They’ve also created an ambitious 3D virtual site tour so that people from all over the world can be super jealous of their fascinating work in paradisiacal surroundings.


Crowds wait 10 hours to spend minutes with “China’s Mona Lisa”

Sunday, October 4th, 2015

Along the River During the Qingming Festival is a 12th century painted handscroll by Song Dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145) which is widely considered the greatest painting in China. Some scholars have dubbed it “China’s Mona Lisa,” because of its immense cultural hold, but artistically it has nothing in common with Renaissance portraiture.

The almost monochrome (there are some pops of green here and there) ink-on-silk scroll is 17 feet wide and just 10 inches high and depicts the vignettes of exuberant life on the Bian River, which runs through Kaifeng, capital of the Northern Song dynasty, during the Qingming Festival. Originally meant to unscrolled slowly by the viewer to enjoy an arm’s width at a time, from right to left, the painting moves from countryside to city and people change with it. Farmers tend their crops and men load their donkeys with wood outside the city so that they can sell it inside the city. Then the peaceful bucolic pursuits shift to hectic, population-dense urban environment bustling with activity: peddlers hawk their wares, fortune tellers tell fortunes, people buy food from street vendors or visit an elegant two-storey tavern, a long-range rice boat transports its cargo on the river. There are 814 people, almost all of them men, 28 different boats, 60 animals (livestock of various sorts), 30 buildings, 20 carriages and eight sedan chairs in the painting.

What there isn’t is any religious activity. The Qingming Festival, held in early spring, is dedicated to the worship of ancestors. People sweep their ancestral tombs and clean temples during the festival, but none of that is overtly present in the painting. The only hint of it is a group of people with willow brooms in a sedan chair who could conceivably have just come from sweeping their ancestors’ graves. There’s debate whether the Chinese title of the work, Qingming Shanghe Tu, actually refers to the festival. The scenes don’t match 12th century chronicles describing the city during the festival at all. “Shaghe tu” means “going along the river picture” but “Qingming” on its own means “clear-bright.” There are several possible interpretations not involving the festival.

In any case, the aim of the painting is to display the prosperity and peace. Most every stratum of society is represented except for the not-so-picturesque beggars, criminals and slum-dwellers. It’s not known exactly when Zhang Zeduan painted it, but if it was after the overthrow of the Northern Song Dynasty by the Jin in 1127, the artist was likely depicting an idealized view of the good ol’ days before Kaifeng was sacked by Jin armies and the emperor captured. Not that it’s literally Kaifeng in the painting. There are no recognizable landmarks, so it could be an ideal city from an ideal time.

The painting has been famous and coveted for 800 years. The first recorded time of many that it was stolen from the imperial collection was in the 1340s and for centuries afterwards emperors would find the stolen masterpiece when estates were confiscated from rich, troublesome nobles. There are more than one hundred seals and colophons (provenance notes) from different owners on the scroll. The earliest is by Zhang Zhu, a Jin Dynasty official, and dates to 1186.

Along the River During the Qingming Festival was a great favorite of the last emperor, Pu Yi, who took it with him when he was expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924. When the Soviet army captured him in 1945 as he attempted to flee the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo of which he nominally ruled, Pu Yi had the painting on him. The Soviets put it in a bank in northern China where it remained until 1950 when it was moved to a local museum. Eventually it made its way back to the Forbidden City, just as it always had, this time to the Palace Museum where scholars announced its rediscovery in 1954.

It has been there ever since, but is rarely displayed because of how fragile and precious it is. It last saw light at the Tokyo National Museum in 2012. Before then it went to Hong Kong in 2007 to take part in a nakedly nationalistic exhibition of China’s greatest artistic masterpieces on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Britain’s return of the island to China. The last time it was on display in Beijing was 2005 in honor of the museum’s 80th anniversary. Now it’s on display again in the Palace Museum for the 90th anniversary, and there are lines a thousand people long waiting to see the iconic masterpiece an hour before the museum opens.

“There’s been so much hype about this painting, so I decided to come early to check it out myself,” said Jacqueline Zhang, 25, who works at a bank in Beijing and came at 5 a.m. to secure a place at the head of the line. She added, “This just shows how easily excited Chinese people can get.”

Past exhibitions of the scroll have attracted huge crowds, but the heightened fervor these days comes as the term “wenhua,” or culture, and the desire to appear cultured have become increasingly prominent in China.

“Now that people have money and social status, they want to show other people that they understand culture,” said Chen Yimo, an expert in Chinese calligraphy and painting.

What a change from the Eliminating the Four Olds. It’s like The Cultural Revolution 2: The Re-Enculturing.

Here’s the whole scroll at a satisfyingly high resolution of more than 38,000 pixels wide. I recommend slowly scrolling from right to left, taking in all the details of dress, architecture, animals (Bactrian camels ftw), ship design, food, to experience the progression the way it was meant to be experienced.


New clay tablet adds 20 lines to Epic of Gilgamesh

Monday, September 28th, 2015

A newly discovered clay tablet in the Sulaymaniah Museum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has corrected the order of chapters, filled in blanks and added 20 lines to the Epic of Gilgamesh. Since the invasion of Iraq and subsequent orgy of looting, the museum has a matter of policy paid smugglers to keep artifacts from leaving the country, no questions asked. The tablet was acquired by the museum in late 2011 as part of a collection of 80-90 tablets sold by an unnamed shady character. Professor Farouk Al-Rawi examined the collection while the seller haggled with museum official Abdullah Hashim. When Al-Rawi he saw this tablet, he told Hashim to pay whatever the seller wanted: $800.

Even caked in mud the tablet’s importance was instantly recognizable to the expert. Once it was clean, Al-Rawi identified it as a fragment of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.
The tablet is the left half of a six-column tablet written in Neo-Babylonian. It’s composed of three fragments that have been glued together, oddly enough, probably either by the original excavators or the seller. It is 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) high, 9.5 cm (3.7 inchs) wide and three cm (1.2 inches) thick.

The tablet adds new verses to the story of how Gilgamesh and Enkidu slew the forest demigod Humbaba. Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, gets the idea to kill the giant Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest, home of the gods, in Tablet II. He thinks accomplishing such a feat of strength will gain him eternal fame. His wise companion (and former wild man) Enkidu tries to talk him out of it — Humbaba was set to his task by the god Enlil — but stubborn Gilgamesh won’t budge, so Enkidu agrees to go with him on this quest. Together they overpower the giant. When the defeated Humbaba begs for mercy, offering to serve Gilgamesh forever and give him every sacred tree in the forest, Gilgamesh is moved to pity, but Enkidu’s blood is up now and he exhorts his friend to go through with the original plan to kill the giant and get that eternal renown he craves. Gilgamesh cuts Humbaba’s head off and then cuts down the sacred forest. The companions return to Uruk with the trophy head and lots of aromatic timber.

The newly discovered tablet casts a new whole light on Humbaba and his forest home. From the absolutely fascinating paper about the find (pdf), which includes the entire text of the tablet both transliterated and translated into English, published by Farouk Al-Rawi and Andrew George of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies:

The most interesting addition to knowledge provided by the new source is the continuation of the description of the Cedar Forest, one of the very few episodes in Babylonian narrative poetry when attention is paid to landscape. The cedars drip their aromatic sap in cascades (ll. 12–16), a trope that gains power from cedar incense’s position in Babylonia as a rare luxury imported from afar. The abundance of exotic and costly materials in fabulous lands is a common literary motif. Perhaps more surprising is the revelation that the Cedar Forest was, in the Babylonian literary imagination, a dense jungle inhabited by exotic and noisy fauna (17–26). The chatter of monkeys, chorus of cicada, and squawking of many kinds of birds formed a symphony (or cacophony) that daily entertained the forest’s guardian, Ḫumbaba. The passage gives a context for the simile “like musicians” that occurs in very broken context in the Hittite version’s description of Gilgameš and Enkidu’s arrival at the Cedar Forest. Ḫumbaba’s jungle orchestra evokes those images found in ancient Near Eastern art, of animals playing musical instruments. Ḫumbaba emerges not as a barbarian ogre and but as a foreign ruler entertained with music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings, but music of a more exotic kind, played by a band of equally exotic musicians.

The aftermath of the heroes’ slaying of Ḫumbaba is now better preserved (300–308). The previously available text made it clear that Gilgameš and Enkidu knew, even before they killed Ḫumbaba, that what they were doing would anger the cosmic forces that governed the world, chiefly the god Enlil. Their reaction after the event is now tinged with a hint of guilty conscience, when Enkidu remarks ruefully that [ana] tušār ništakan qišta, “we have reduced the forest [to] a wasteland’ (303). The anxiety about offending the gods seems to a modern reader compounded by ecological regret. Enkidu goes on to imagine the angry questions that Enlil will ask them when they arrive home: minû uzzakunūma taraḫḫisā qišta, “what was this wrath of yours that you went trampling the forest?” (306). In the theme of the angry gods, the poems about Ḫumbaba in both Sumerian and Akkadian already displayed an ethical ambivalence toward the expedition to his Cedar Forest, arising from what one commentator has called the “double nature” of the forest’s guardian as ogre and servant of Enlil (Forsyth 1981: 21). This newly recovered speech of Enkidu adds to the impression that, to the poets’ minds, the destruction of Ḫumbaba and his trees was morally wrong.

Here is a video of Hazha Jalal, curator of the Sulaymaniyah Museum, displaying the tablet and talking about it in Kurdish. Translation below courtesy of neurologist and Mesopotamian history buff Dr. Osama S. M. Amin.

“The tablet dates back to the Neo-Bablyonian period, 2000-1500 BCE. It is a part of tablet V of the epic. It was acquired by the Museum in the year 2011 and that Dr. Farouk Al-Raw transliterated it. It was written as a poem and many new things this version has added, for example Gilgamesh and his friend met a monkey. We are honored to house this tablet and any one can visit the Museum during its opening hours from 8:30 morning to noon. The entry is free for you and your guests. Thank you.”


Rijksmuseum acquires marksmen’s guild chain

Saturday, September 26th, 2015

The Rijksmuseum has fulfilled a long-denied wish of one its planners by acquiring a rare 16th century marksmen’s guild chain. The silver chain with gilding and enamel decoration has no maker’s mark, but it was made in Bergen op Zoom or Breda for the marksmen’s guild Saint George of Zevenbergen.

The Schuttersgilde were voluntary militias which defended Dutch cities from enemy attacks and internal unrest in the Middle Ages, but by the late-16th century had few wars to fight. Organized into guilds by neighborhood or by weapon of choice (bow, crossbow, musket), the militias continued to hold regular target practice in fields and in indoor meeting halls.

Once a year the guilds would hold annual marksmanship competitions. The archers’ guild had “jay shoot” in which the members would compete to shoot a wooden bird off of a high pole. The winner would earn the title of “Marksman King” and be allowed to wear a splendid chain to which he would add a medallion with his own coat-of-arms. Only one medallion has survived on the Saint George of Zevenbergen chain, that of Cornelis de Glymes van Bergen, Lord of Zevenbergen, who won the competition on July 18th, 1546.

The chain is richly decorated with oak branches and various symbols. [...] In combination, it demonstrates to whom the work once belonged. Saint George and the Dragon refer to the patron saint of the marksmen’s guild, the seven rabbit mountains depict the name of the town where the guild was established: the city of Zevenbergen (“Seven Mountains”). The remaining symbols portray the task of the marksmen’s guild: to defend the Church and the State. The oak leaves represent “steadfastness in faith” and the birds represent “loyalty to Church and State”.

The centerpiece of the chain is a gilded Saint George slaying the dragon while the daughter of the king prays by beside him with her lamb on a leash.

Very few marksmen’s chains survived intact over the years, and this one is so elaborately decorated it stands out as the rarest of the rare. By the end of the 19th century it was recognized as a highly coveted object of cultural patrimony. Art historian and historic preservation pioneer Victor de Stuers, the visionary who commissioned architect Pierre Cuypers to design the new Rijksmuseum building against the wishes of King William III, was horrified when the chain was sold in 1874 to Alphonse James de Rothschild, scion of the French branch of the famous banking family and owner of the Château Lafitte vineyard. De Stuers thought the chain was an irreplaceable piece of Dutch cultural heritage.

The chain remained in the French Rothschild family until 2014 when they put it up for auction at Christie’s Paris. It sold to an anonymous buyer for $392,920, twice the pre-sale estimate. The buyer, who still prefers to remain anonymous, donated it to the Rijksmuseum.

There could no more fitting home for the chain because it has a thematic connection to the museum’s most famous masterpiece. The Schuttersgilde would also hold yearly banquets which were captured in group portraits. The static, stiff crowd around a table of the early 16th century evolved into more active postures in the 17th century. Rembrandt’s The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, better known today as The Night Watch, was a schutterij group portrait, a uniquely dynamic attempt to capture the group in action.


Getty and Armenian Church reach agreement over stolen Bible pages

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

Five years ago, the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America filed a $105 million lawsuit against the J. Paul Getty Museum alleging that the museum was wrongfully in possession of seven pages ripped out of the 13th century Bible that belongs to the Church. Now the parties have come to an agreement: the Getty acknowledges that the Armenian Apostolic Church owns the pages; the Church donates the pages to the Getty. This way nothing has to actually move or change hands, but the Getty, which in its initial response to the suit insisted that it had “legal ownership” of the pages and that the lawsuit was “groundless and should be dismissed,” has to admit the Armenian Apostolic Church is the true owner.

The Zeyt’un Gospels were commissioned in 1256 by the Catholikos, the leader of the Armenian Church, Constantine I. This Bible is the first signed works of T’oros Roslin, scribe and the greatest Armenian illuminator of the Middle Ages. The pages (there are actually eight of them; the Church didn’t know about the last one when it filed) are canon tables, concordances listing passages in the Gospels that describe the same event. The text is therefore sparse, just chapter and verse references.

In the Middle Ages, canon tables were often depicted in an architectural setting, the columns of numbers placed between drawings of literal columns. What makes these pages exceptional is the illumination by T’oros Roslin who decorated each page in a riot of brilliant colors and gold paint. The tables are divided by columns and topped with intricately detailed geometric panels. Birds, vines, trees, vases line the borders and stand proudly atop the header panels. No two pages are the same.

This Bible, in addition to being an irreplaceable Armenian national treasure, is held to be sacred and miraculous. The Zeyt’un Gospels were venerated as having protective powers which is why in 1915 when the Ottoman government began massacring Armenians, the book was carried through every street of Zeyt’un in an attempt to ensure the entire city would be under its divine protection.

Later that year, church officials gave the Bible to a member of the Armenian royal Sourenian family. The Sourenians had connections in the upper echelons of the Ottoman government, so the hope was they wouldn’t be killed or deported and could keep the Gospels safe. They lasted a year before they were deported to Marash in 1916, but they did receive special treatment that allowed them to survive transportation instead of starving to death like so many of their compatriots.

The Sourenian pater familias loaned the Bible to his friend Dr. H. Der Ghazarian for what was supposed to be a few days. At the perfectly wrong time, the Sourenians were unexpectedly deported and lost track of the Zeyt’un Gospels. It seems the book remained in Marash for the duration of World War I. It surfaced there in 1928 but various obstacles kept it out of the Church’s hands until 1948 when the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul took possession of it and gave it to the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia, for safekeeping and display. The Bible remains there to this day.

The missing pages were spotted in 1948 when the Bible returned from Aleppo after it was authenticated by the same Dr. Ghazarian who had it for a while during the war. Although the Church investigated, it was never able to discover who stole the pages and when. At some point the pages ended up in an anonymous private collection in Watertown, Massachusetts. They were seen in public for the first time since the Genocide when the collector loaned the pages to the Morgan Library for a 1994 exhibition. After that exhibition, the Getty acquired the pages. Thirteen years later, Armenian attorney Vartkes Yeghiayan who has often represented victims of the Armenian Genocide discovered the pages were at the Getty and alerted the Church. The Getty refused all requests to repatriate the unquestionably stolen pages and the lawsuit ensued.

It seems to me the Church is conceding a great deal for the sake of a statement of historical ownership. There really is no question that the pages were stolen, so why shouldn’t they be reunited with the rest of the Bible?

The following statement from Getty director Timothy Potts irks me:

“That the pages were saved from destruction and conserved in a museum all these years means that these irreplaceable representations of Armenia’s rich artistic heritage have been and will be preserved for future generations.”

The removal of the pages was the destruction. They weren’t “saved.” They were ripped out and sold on the black market, bought by unscrupulous collectors and the Getty. The Bible itself survived a genocide and two world wars and has been conserved in a museum for 67 years. The Getty having taken care of blatantly stolen pages for a decade hardly makes it the heritage-preserving hero of the piece.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys seem happy, at any rate.

“This is a momentous occasion for the Armenian people, coming at a historic time, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. I want to thank the Getty for joining in a solution that recognizes the historical suffering of the Armenian people and that will also allow this Armenian treasure to remain in the museum which has cared for it and made it available to the Armenian and larger community in Los Angeles. We are pleased that both sides arrived at an amicable solution,” said Lee Crawford Boyd, the Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck shareholder representing the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America. “The sacred Canon Tables are now being recognized as having belonged to the Armenian Church. Together with the Church and the Armenian people, we are thrilled with this outcome.”

No word on whether this on-paper ownership switcheroo was accompanied by some kind of financial settlement.

To learn more about the Armenian Genocide, including primary sources, maps, eye-witness statements, a timeline of events and a collection of horrifying photographs, please visit the website of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute.


Wadsworth Atheneum reopens to great acclaim

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

After a five-year, $33 million renovation, Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art reopened to the public on Saturday and the public was eager to renew its acquaintance with the venerable museum, filling the entrance of the museum 15 minutes before opening.

The renovation has refurbished more than 38,000 square feet of the Wadsworth’s exhibition spaces and the historic buildings themselves. Areas that were previously relegated to storage have been reclaimed for display adding 17 new galleries and an exceptional 16,000 square feet of new exhibition space, a 27% increase. Artworks from the European collections that have been gathering dust in storage now have a chance to shine in the expanded museum, setting off the century-old Morgan Memorial Building, the first Beaux-Arts museum building in the United States, to its greatest advantage. This is the first time all the galleries have been open at the same time in 50 years.

The project took so long and was so expensive because there was a great deal of structural work to be done. There were leaks in many of the galleries and all five of the museum’s buildings needed new roofs with proper waterproofing. New climate control systems were installed in both the display areas and the storage facility to ensure the collection is protected. New lighting, restrooms, an elevator, wifi and signage bring the oldest continually operating public art museum in the country into the modern era.

The beauty of the historic buildings — the Gothic Revival Wadsworth building (1844) which housed the entirety of the original collection when the museum opened, the Tudor Revival Colt Memorial building (1910), the Renaissance Revival Morgan Memorial building (1910-15) — has been renewed with the uncovering of original architectural elements like concrete beams and window casings. Natural light is introduced through the placement of new skylights the restoration of a period one.

The Early Baroque gallery, now a rich, appetite-stimulating red, is home to two of the gems in the Wadsworth collection: Caravaggio’s Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (1595-96) and Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (1616–18) by Artemisia Gentileschi which was the museum acquired last year.

The Morgan Great Hall with its 24-foot-high topped with vaulted ceilings and new skylights has been repainted in a deep blue shade poetically called “evening dove,” an elegant backdrop for the collection of important 16th to 19th century European and American works that now cover the walls in gallery style. Before this renovation, the Great Hall was painted white and exhibited contemporary pieces. Before that, it was a sort of raspberry color and while it had classical works like it does now, there were far fewer of them. When it first opened in 1915 there was a line of large tapestries on the walls and sculptures on the floor.

The inspiration for the Great Hall as it is today is one of my favorite paintings in the Wadsworth collection: Interior of a Picture Gallery with the Collection of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga by Giovanni Paolo Panini. Panini, master of the architectural fantasy, painted Interior of a Picture Gallery in 1749. He set Cardinal Gonzaga in the center of a vast be-columned fantasy gallery with his entire collection of artworks taking up every inch of space on the walls, propped against the furniture and stacked on tables. The painting was a great success for Panini, inspiring subsequent takes on the subject of the fantasy art gallery commissioned by Étienne-François de Choiseul-Stainville, duc de Choiseul, who was the French ambassador to the papal court in Rome. Panini made a pair of works for him in 1756 depicting the great art and architecture of Ancient Rome and Modern Rome (modern in this case being mainly Renaissance and Baroque), then another pair on the same theme the next year (both now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The reviews of the renovation have so far been uniformly glowing.





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